John is the manager of a twenty person department. He’s beyond exhausted, he’s burnt out. And he feels great about that.
John works very hard to make sure that every single employee performs at a high level, in order to achieve the goals that were set in the strategic planning meetings the previous year. It requires a great deal of effort on his part and long hours but that’s how he got to be “the leader,” he is the cream that rose to the top.
Productivity indicators for his department are down for the third straight quarter, however, and John feels the pressure to up his leadership game. In a time of reflection one day, over a cold cup of coffee and half a bagel, he decides to try being a servant leader. On the morning commute the next day he ponders how he could go the extra mile to do something nice for the people in his department. Some day instead of having his administrative assistant go down to the cafe to get his coffee he will go and get his own. And at their monthly meetings to review objectives he will take the minutes himself instead of asking someone else to do it. And once the objectives are met he will take everyone out for lunch. That should cover it.
When John tells the admin one morning that he will go get his own coffee, she is surprised by his offer. John is surprised that she seems disappointed. The coffee that John comes back with isn’t near as good as what he normally has, and it puts him in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
When John volunteers himself to take the minutes at the next department meeting it raises a few eyebrows around the table. The week following the meeting is especially busy, and John struggles to find the extra time for the task, leaving him even more stressed and tired. When he finally gets them out they’re not very good and don’t communicate well the outcomes of the meeting.
A few months later the results of various projects aren’t as good as John would like, but there’s a holiday coming up and his schedule is relatively open the day before the holiday. He figures this is a good time to provide everyone a free lunch. The task of setting up the lunch adds to John’s burdens and not many people show up for the lunch.
John’s efforts to be a servant leader met with mixed results. But he’s sure that the department respects him more now for it. And though it left him wearier than ever, John actually sees this as a good sign. In the article he read on servant leadership it talked about sacrifice. So if he feels worse as a result of being a servant leader than he must be doing something right. Right?
Tom is also a manager of a twenty person department. Tom is well aware of what is expected of his department, and his department has a history of exceeding expectations. What’s first on Tom’s mind, however, is the welfare and growth of those who work in his department. He knows that as they grow they will not only develop as persons but they will become better equipped for whatever challenges their department may face.
Jan, the administrative assistant to the department, is glad to go down to the cafe each morning to get a cup of coffee for Tom. She usually adds a little something extra with it. She knows that her task enables Tom to do better at his job each day. This is her way of making a contribution.
Jan is also a trusted adviser to Tom. By the nature of her job she has a good overall idea of what is going on. Tom welcomes her feedback on the impact past decisions have had on people in the department. And Tom often seeks out her insight on how future decisions might fit into the big picture.
Whenever an issue arises that has a broad impact across the department or needs the input of several diverse perspectives Tom calls a department meeting. He usually has Ellen, a senior technical writer in the group, work with Andy to set up the meetings. Ellen has a lot of experience in event planning from a previous job. Event planning is a skill set that Andy wishes to develop. By working together Andy is able to learn from Ellen, and Ellen’s busy schedule isn’t complicated by the details of setting up the meeting.
When it comes to taking minutes, Tom assigns the task to a newer employee in the group. It gives them a chance to learn more about the workings of the department. But since they may not be familiar with all the language and activities of the department, Tom also asks a longer-term employee to work with them. They have a chance to learn from each other and often it even develops into a mentoring relationship.
Tom is careful however not to assign the task of note taker to Carmen. In an open conversation between the two of them one day Tom learned that Carmen has a slight hearing loss. Normally it doesn’t cause any problems for her, but in a meeting it can be harder for her to follow the conversation. Note taking would be particularly difficult for Carmen. And Tom is also careful to avoid holding meetings in the Grand View room. The room is a spectacular setting, but the vaulted hardwood ceilings make for lousy acoustics.
After the department had worked extra hard to wrap up a key project, Tom thought it would be good to celebrate by taking the department out for lunch. Instead he decided to ask everyone what they thought. To his surprise they decided they wanted to do a potluck. It gave everyone a chance to add their own personal touch to the celebration and it was a nice way to learn more about each other. Ellen and Andy were more than happy to set it up. And the Grand View Room made a wonderful setting for the occasion.
Tom recognizes that he’s a servant leader. He’s committed to that and his own personal development is a priority, because he knows how important it is for each person, including himself, to give of their unique skills. Tom also recognizes that it is not his position as manager that makes him the leader. He is a leader because he is willing to serve. Jan is a leader because she makes her own contribution. Ellen, Andy, Carmen and every single person in the department recognizes that they each have the responsibility to serve in their own way. And in their service they lead. They work hard to get the job done and do it well. But first and foremost they work hard to ensure that everyone involved is enriched and grows from the work. It can be a lot of effort, but it brings them to life. They are eager to get to work each day because they know they have a purpose there. And they are eager to get back home because the day has left them better equipped to face the rest of life.
Is John a servant leader? Is John even a leader at all? Who would you rather work for, John or Tom? How could an employee in John’s department be a servant leader? What could Tom do to be a better servant leader?
Servant Leadership isn’t a leader going the extra mile
to do something nice for others.
Servant Leadership is a servant going deeper
to be someone of significance to others.
Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Very insightful post Dan. Much food for thought. Self reflection: Which servant leader am I more liked do I need to make changes? Thanks for always making me go deeper into myself.
Thank you, Teri! Lead on!
Nice comparative story to teach an important lesson about servant leadership. Thanks, Daniel.